Some findings in the archives; enclosure in action

News | Posted on Friday 13 January 2023

PhD student Chantal Berry recently visited the Nottinghamshire Archives, to ascertain the sources available for her research into rural soundscapes of early modern England, a broad title for her thesis. Here is Chantal’s account of her visit.

On a cold and frosty December morning, an 0832 LNER train pulled away from Nottingham Railway Station leaving me behind on the freezing platform with a rucksack and laptop case in-hand, ready for a two-day research trip. Following blindly directions offered by Google maps and walking briskly along the Nottingham & Beeston Canal, the city archives finally loomed into view. It was a beautifully clear winter day, and the shadows cast by high-rise flats surrounding the once-bustling industrial hub of this midland’s town shaded the council building that houses some of the counties most important historical records. It looked rather impending. Happily, this first impression was not akin to the experience had within the dark grey brick walls and uPVC windows, where the staff on the reception desk gave a cheery “hello!’’ as the fan heaters offered a welcome warm embrace. After the usual faff to find a locker, library card registration and pencil sharpening, the items I had pre-arranged to view were laid out in the reading room.

The purpose of my trip was to ascertain the sources available for my research into rural soundscapes of early modern England, a broad title for my PhD thesis. Laxton village, a small farming village situated about 20 miles west of Lincoln is well-known for its particular history of open-field farming, which is still practiced in some parts of the village today. Due to traditional agricultural techniques, Laxton appeared to be a potential case study for agricultural communities; somewhere that open-field farming may still be experienced. As a result, it has become a particular location of interest for my exploration into historical sound.

The first item I viewed in Nottinghamshire Archives was PR4081. A heavy yellowy vellum-bound book of which the spine read: ‘Laxton Parish. Church Warden’s Accounts 1785-1856’. Reminded that the dating of this item promised legible script yet information which would be about 100 years later than my desired research period, I was determined not to be too disheartened on finding a lack of existing 17th Century records for this particular village though the University of Nottingham’s handy ‘archives relating to Laxton’ document. The records from the late 18th Century I thought, may have something to offer with regards to the development of agricultural practice customary to a village resistant to the movement towards enclosure that had befallen most other English villages by the end of the 18th Century.

Four hours later I concluded that this hypothesis was not entirely wrong. Although the four items I viewed were indeed too late to use as specific case studies for a thesis about rural soundscapes of the early modern period, I had discovered some useful information about the environment of Laxton village by the end of the 18th Century. From the Churchwardens accounts it was clear to see that Laxton was a village interested in land boundaries. Despite emphasis on Laxton’s character as the ‘England’s Last Open-Field Village’, Benjamin Hunt and Robert Taylor’s accounts of 1785-6 suggest that Laxton was not naïve of land use change, and nor was it a community of people reluctant to organise and temporarily section land according to use, tenant or even in order to create work for the unemployed of the parish - perhaps to minimise Poor Rates. On the 27th April 1785, 2s 6d was given “To George Law for stoans & Laying the Church yard wall” and 1s “To Leading a load of stone”. On the 30th April, 6s 8d given “To the Pallitor” [waller]. On the 5th March 2s “To George Law for heading the trees in The Church yard”, 13th June 1790 6d “To Church yard fencing”, 4th Jan 1788, 2s 2d “To Brown for fencing Church yard” and on the 1st April 1786, 7s 5d given for “Platching the Church yard hedg” [platch - Scots for splash in mud, smear/ could be ‘patching’ which is the action of mending holes in a hedge].

As well as the account book, I also viewed the terriers for Laxton and Laxton Moorhouse Chapel 1714, 1726 and 1743. The following transcriptions were made from the latter, DR/1/3/2/1/110/3;

A Terrier of Laxton and Laxton Moorhouse Vicarage September the 18: 1743

In Laxton and Laxton Moorhousre are Eightytwo Houses which pay three halfpence a House. Sixty two Orchards. Twenty seven Dove Coates. Seventy one Crofts that pay Tythe to the vicar, which contain sixtyseven acres, one Road and nineteen Perches of Ground. In the Longmeadow are three Hundred and Forty nine Doles [doves or ‘dool/dole’ boundary marker,stone, post or unploughed strip of land] In East Kirking Meadow are Seventy two Doles [doves/dool/dole]. In Shitterpool Meadow are ninety five Doles [doves/dool/dole] that pay Tythe to the vicar. The Church yard is one acre, two Roads sixteen Perches. The Vicarage yard and Croft is one acre two Roads sixteen Perches. Moorhouse Chappel yard is two Roads twenty four Perches. There is a Tythe here payd which is call’d Mainports and Oxgangs. [as seen in the Easter tithes book 1741].

There is evidence in these accounts to suggest environmental sounds of Laxton by the end of the 18th Century, which may offer an impression of unenclosed rural soundscapes at this period of time such as architectural acoustics, field boundary acoustics and animal sounds. When compared to churchwarden’s accounts from enclosed rural locations of an earlier period, it may be possible to detect a general trend of change or stability in the rural soundscape across a period of time affected by land-use change such as enclosure.

Moreover, other records held at University of Nottingham Manuscripts & Special Collections such as the Laxton survey of 1736 (Ma4893) and Enclosure Commissioners’ reports (Ma2P100 1-2) demonstrate the potential for rediscovering the wildlife of Laxton, and thus the potential soundscape associated with species of animals, plants and insects found within the ecosystem of particular mentioned trees and animals. In the Laxton survey of 1736, fieldnames are listed alongside tenants and rental price ‘Stubbin Close’, where ‘stubbing’ is the action associated with rooting up trees, ‘The Horse Close’, ‘Little Pond Close’ and ‘West Inger Close Meadow’, where an ‘Ing’ is a northern English word for an often-boggy meadow by a river. The Enclosure Commissioner’s report highlights road changes, waterway changes and field/area names such as ‘Pingle’, ‘Pinfold Close’, ‘Pears Yard’, ‘Brecks’, ‘Castwright Close’, ‘Crab Tree Furlong’, ‘Dobbins’, ‘Yew Croft Meadow’, ‘East Kirk Ing’, ‘Goading Pool’ and ‘Thackholmes’. This report is accompanied by a map, the second known survey map of Laxton, suggesting the uses of these lands by man and beast. Unfortunately, this information was collected and recorded in 1860, and is therefore limited in its use for a study of the early modern period, an era that typically falls between the years 1500-1750.

Other items in the University Manuscript and Special Collections consisted largely of rental accounts, especially those of John Green, who’s book keeping was exceptional 1680s-1720s. These accounts would be useful for research into demographics and economic change. 

The next stage of my research is to look into the manor account records between 1651-c.1750. Held at the British Library, Eg3631 and Eg3632 form part of the Edgerton Collection. In these records, I will be keeping an ear out for any information which suggests land-use, livestock or any mention of human-based activity such as festival celebrations and agricultural traditions with a view to reconstructing snippets of history in audio form. So, next stop is London, and a Christmas holiday trip to Laxton village itself.